Food halls. From New York’s Chelsea Market to Houston’s Bravery Chef Hall, putting diverse vendors under one roof has meant success all over the country. Even in NoVA, we’ve got examples like The Block in Annandale, Chefscape in Leesburg, Quarter Market in Arlington’s Ballston Quarter and Urbanspace in the Tysons Galleria. Who can blame Great American Restaurants for wanting to get in on the trend?
The thing is, Good Eats Emporium isn’t really a food hall. It’s a casual table service restaurant with a menu divided into four sections, not including cocktails and dessert. There is one kitchen and you get one bill. It shares more in common with Chili’s than it does with any of the aforementioned food halls. But guess what? I found myself unable to hold a grudge for the misleading introduction I had to the restaurant. It may resemble some pretty schlocky competitors on the surface, but Good Eats Emporium has heart, which translates to the above-average service we all expect from Great American Restaurants, as well as food that, while nothing fancy, will have me returning to feed some cravings.
All of my favorites happen to appear on the Good Eats Burgers & Wings portion of the menu. The new concept deserves to be expanded, both to additional locations and to include more menu items. The current version has just seven dishes. But each that I tried was an excellent iteration of a classic. Wings are available in three different versions, including fried ones and chicken that’s smoked, then grilled. I tried the latter. A hint of spice rub crisps up on the grill, but leaves the wings juicy inside. The rub combines alchemically with its side of Alabama-style white barbecue sauce, a sweet-but-zesty mayonnaise and vinegar dip.
My server compared the bacon cheeseburger to the one at Five Guys, meaning a thinner patty, but with the option to add a second, there’s nothing svelte about the amalgam of greasy beef, crisp bacon and American cheese. Both that and the buttermilk fried chicken sandwich are served on a homemade potato bun with a side of crisp, skinny fries. The buns are buttered, then griddled for a hint of crispness that especially complements the crunchy slab of chicken, dressed with pickles, mayo and a swipe of mild Pommery mustard.
Also new to Great American Restaurants is Stupid Good BBQ. I was impressed with the crisp-skinned half chicken, spackled in a sweet and earthy rub. The ribs are optimally tender–clinging lightly to the bone, but never falling off. They, too, benefit from a nice char. However, both pulled pork and brisket are not only on the dry side, but are too smoky. The brisket, especially, tasted downright carcinogenic when I tried it. All barbecue dishes come with one of five sauces, though they don’t really need the help. They’re also accompanied by light, cakey cornbread that leans sweet, but not excessively so. Among the other sides, I was especially a fan of the gooey, stretchy mac-and-cheese with its al dente noodles.
Tacos from Taqueria Loca are perhaps the most uneven of the offerings. California-style fish tacos, bursting with a zippy pile of carrots and cabbage and topped with meaty grilled fish are satisfying enough to order three of a kind. Though overstuffed, it manages not to break through its soft corn tortilla. Chunks of al pastor, while not what you might get carved from a traditional trompo, are also a pineapple-crowned highlight. But the night that I tried the beef barbacoa, it was almost inedibly salty.
Best Buns serves breakfast sandwiches and Starbucks drinks, but I only got a chance to try the excellent pastries. Highlights are the cinnamon-raisin Danish, made with coils of flaky laminated dough; buttery double chocolate chip cookies; and substantial coffee cake muffins, essentially cinnamon-swirled, streusel-topped mini coffee cakes.
More substantial desserts have their own section on the menu. “Churros” deserve the quotation marks around them. They’re really Ozzie rolls covered in cinnamon sugar and served with warm chocolate sauce. They made me think more of fluffy American doughnuts than crisp churros. The brownie with ice cream would be better with more sundae fixings, but the centerpiece is likably soft and chewy. For those craving a chocolaty dessert that’s not too sweet, it’s just the ticket.
It may sound obvious, but we critics rate restaurants by how well they excel at what they set out to do. I’m not comparing Good Eats Emporium to restaurants on this year’s 30 best list. It’s the kind of place where you seat yourself but servers immediately come to your aid. It’s casual but the unfussy menu is filled with mostly great renditions of the wide variety of available dishes. Food is inexpensive, but service is friendly and well-paced. In other words, Good Eats Emporium is another success for a restaurant group whose hits just keep on coming. OK, it’s not a food hall, but I won’t be complaining next time I’m craving a burger and wings. // 45990 Waterview Plaza, Sterling
See this: No frills here. Think of your favorite fast-casual spot, then add table service, murals and fun superhero art on the bathroom doors and you’ve got the idea.
Eat this: Smoked & Grilled Wings, bacon cheeseburger, buttermilk fried chicken sandwich
Pro tip: Get there on the late side. Both times I ate after 7 p.m., I was offered bags of Best Buns pastries that the staff said they were just going to throw out otherwise.
★ Fair ★★ Good ★★★ Great ★★★★ Excellent ★★★★★ Superior